War Aims

Robert Fisk

‘What is the new world order?’ a Saudi preacher asked me the other day. Order is something the Saudis like the sound of. The world is an entity from which many Saudis are isolated. ‘New’ is a word which for Arabs has a suspicious, dangerous ring about it. I tried to explain what President Bush might have meant by the phrase, referring to the context in which it first appeared. The Cold War was over, Eastern Europe was free. The Americans obviously thought that these winds of change applied to the Middle East as well. Dictators were no longer going to be tolerated – certainly not dictators who opposed the wishes of the United States.

This, at least, was my interpretation of what Mr Bush might have intended the ‘new world order’ to mean. In Saudi Arabia, of course, it is important to preface all remarks with a personal disclaimer. The Saudis may officially be America’s friends and allies in the latest Gulf War but serious discussion quickly reveals their doubts. Mr Bush’s assertion that the ‘American way of life’ was at stake in the Gulf troubled the rulers of Kuwait as well as Saudi Arabia, both of whom want American military support without any change at all in their way of life (respectively, absolute monarchy and oligarchy). King Fahd and Sheikh Jaber, needless to say, rally their compatriots with calls for ‘freedom’ (relevant in the case of Kuwait but very definitely an unhappy word in Saudi Arabia) and ‘God’, whose name can be invoked with satisfaction by both nations.

Indeed, it must be the lack of any common goal – save for the necessity or otherwise of enforcing United Nations Resolution 678 – that has given the Almighty such a prominent role in this conflict. On 17 January, scarcely thirty-six hours after the first American air strikes against Iraq, King Fahd, who calls himself the Custodian of the Two Holy Places, demanded that Saddam Hussein ‘return to God’s order – a distinctly theological version of the ‘new world order’ – and added that ‘we invoke God that he might register victory for His army.’

In Baghdad, Saddam has himself sought God’s inspiration – the deity naturally supporting the newly charismatic Ba’ath Party – ‘against the forces of Satan and his hirelings’. Having adopted the persona of the 12th-century Kurdish warrior Saladin, Saddam is trying to speak with the same voice: ‘Satan will be vanquished,’ he said three days after the start of the war. Faced with the French Crusaders at the battle of Hittin on 4 July 1187, al-Malik al-Afdal, Saladin’s own son, records how his father rallied his Moslem troops with the battle cry: ‘Satan must not win!’

Mr Bush asked God to protect America’s soldiers in the Gulf: he has yet to demand victory for the new world order, but he has already placed the conflict on quasi-theological, moral grounds. Addressing a meeting of Christian religious leaders in the United States, he announced that the Gulf conflict was between ‘good and evil, right and wrong’. Jesus, it should be added, has been left out of the equation even if Mr Bush’s audience did not realise why. For any manifestation of the Christian religion in Saudi Arabia is about as welcome as the image of Satan. Hence the young men who must die in defence of the Gulf states were not permitted to celebrate Christmas in public nor to wear crucifixes. The Archbishop of Canterbury wisely refrained from desecrating the desert with his presence, albeit that he has now assured his flock there that they will be fighting a ‘just’ war.

Thus has this war been blessed by the protector of the Prophet Mohammed’s shrines, the putative descendant of Saladin, the President of the United States and the head of the Church of England.

God heard the embattled nations shout ...
Good God, said God,
I’ve got my work cut out.

There is a reason for the extraordinary evangelism of Fahd, Bush and Saddam. Prayer before battle is a common enough phenomenon. Yet this is something more. The righteousness exhibited by these men since 15 January has been a substitute for the causes which they adopted before the expiry of the United Nations deadline. Before the war, when there still seemed to be a chance that the Iraqis would withdraw from Kuwait, it was possible to explain the reasons for the potential conflict in political terms. Kuwait had been invaded by Iraq. The United Nations had demanded Iraq’s unconditional withdrawal. Mr Bush had sought the restoration of the ‘legitimate’ government. He wanted ‘security’ in the region.

Now that the war has begun and Western lives are about to be destroyed in the desert, certain aspects of these demands have been thrown into sharp relief. It is one thing to make the return of the legitimate government in Kuwait a condition of avoiding war. But to repeat the same demand as a war aim – as a goal for which many thousands of young men will have to die – focuses much more attention on what this actually means. For Kuwait, as we all know but rarely admit, is not a democracy. It was ruled by an immensely wealthy, hierarchical monarch whose last gesture towards democracy was the abolition of the country’s parliament. This man, who now languishes in the safety of the Taif Sheraton Hotel, paying out billions to underwrite America’s ‘good-versus-evil’ war, is no inspiration for the half-million-strong Christian army in the desert.

Nor is the vague notion of ‘security’, because no one – least of all the Saudis – has any idea what this involves. Is the ‘new world order’ (in other words, the American Armed Forces) to impose some form of League of Nations mandate across the territories of the northern Gulf? Will this be intended to encourage genuine. Western-style democracy – anathema to the Saudis and distrusted by the ‘legitimate’ government of Kuwait – or merely to pacify an unruly and dangerous nation called Iraq? The British Foreign Secretary has already suggested that the Arab states would play the principal role in defining the new ‘security’ structures, a rather tardy concession.

There is a problem here, too. After all, the last ‘new world order’ in the Middle East followed Woodrow Wilson’s claim during the war to end all wars that ‘every people has a right to choose the sovereignty under which they shall live ... Small states ... have a right to enjoy the same respect for their territorial integrity that great and powerful nations expect and insist on.’ Mr Bush would probably have liked to repeat this, were it not for the troublesome reference about people being able to choose their own sovereignty. For the latter is very definitely not one of Mr Bush’s war aims. He has applied this, in a vague way, to Iraq – but not to Kuwait, where the political opposition has already said that it will not co-operate with Sheikh Jaber once the country is liberated. Thus the Wilson principle, which might have made a valiant enough rallying-call to the Western armies in Saudi Arabia, could not be invoked.

Curiously enough, the actual order that was imposed upon the Middle East after the 1914-18 war might well suit the Americans and British today. The League of Nations gave the world’s two victorious superpowers – Britain and France – a mandate to govern Iraq, Transjordan, Palestine and Syria. All were variously betrayed or suborned into accepting a political status which none of them desired. The British mandate ended in what Churchill was to call the ‘hell-disaster’ of Palestine. The French mandate – inaugurated when the commander of the French mandatory power marched up to the tomb of Islam’s bravest warrior with the words ‘Saladin, we have returned’ – created Lebanon from part of western Syria. In their vain attempts to control these countries, Britain and France shamelessly used minorities to coerce religious majorities, arming the Druze, the Armenians, the Christian Maronites, the Jews or the Arabs of Palestine.

If Iraq is conquered – or its regime destroyed – neither America nor Britain has the troops to occupy the nation. The state would become a surrogate, ruled by a commission (America, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would have an obvious claim). Kuwait would become, in effect, an American protected orate – we are already being told about a ‘smaller’ US presence in the Gulf rather than a Western withdrawal and the ‘pre-positioning’ of vast amounts of matériel – while Saudi Arabia would be left to bankroll the rebuilding of all the Iraqi infrastructure smashed by Allied air raids.

Iran would emerge as the dominant Gulf power. Israel would be free to ignore Palestinian demands for autonomy for at least a decade, perhaps even find some excuse to deport the entire Arab population from the West Bank, as one (if not more) of Mr Shamir’s Cabinet currently advocates.

All this suggests why Mr Bush has good reason to reduce his war aims to a common denominator – just as Saddam Hussein has already done. Having appropriated the Palestinian cause (courtesy of Mr Bush’s weakness in failing to address the issue), Saddam has now set out to ‘liberate’ Palestine and drive the ‘infidel’ armies out of the Gulf. He had long ago abandoned any references to Kuwait. Now the Western allies are largely doing the same. Destroying Saddam has become the focus of American attention. Destroying the American Army has become Saddam’s goal. Kuwait merely provides them with a battlefield which they will eventually leave, burning and seeded with mines for generations to come.

Little wonder, then, that God has been called upon to inspire the legions in the desert. The ‘new world order’ will have to drop out of the picture for a while lest it reminds us of the hopeless political aims which lie behind the conflict.